In a Blog’s Stead
Archives: October 2002

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The Logic of Empire

Ludwig von Mises used to argue that a market economy regulated by governmental intervention, hailed by many as a middle path between socialism and laissez-faire, is an inherently unstable system: each additional interference with private commerce distorts the price system, leading to economic dislocations that must be addressed either by repealing the first intervention or by adding a second, and so on ad infinitum.

I'm reminded of Mises' argument every time the boosters of America's current rush to empire tell us: "Well sure, maybe you dovish types are right when you say that the 9/11 attacks could have been avoided if we'd pursued a less provocative Middle East policy. But it's too late to debate that issue now. We can't turn back the clock; we have to deal with the situation as it currently exists. Given the threat we face now, we have to pursue that threat and eliminate it."

The problem with this argument is that it's timeless. Hawks were saying things like this long before 9/11, about the threats that we faced then. Every time America goes off on one of its bombing or invading romps, resentment grows among the bombed and invaded. From this resentment sprout new threats to America's security. To protect against these threats, America engages in further bombing and invading, which creates still more resentment, which breeds still new threats, prompting still more bombing and invading, and so on ad infinitum.

Mises' insight that interventions breed more interventions is as true in foreign policy as it is in domestic economy. And just as the logical endpoint of the cycle of economic interventions is complete socialism, so the logical endpoint of the cycle of military interventions is world conquest. In both cases, the only way to avoid the goal is to stop the cycle.

A little over a century ago, the libertarian sociologist William Graham Sumner responded to the Spanish-American War with an address titled The Conquest of the United States by Spain. His thesis was that although the U.S. had defeated Spain on the battlefield, it had done so only at the cost of embracing an imperialist ideology like Spain's, thus in effect conceding defeat to Spain on the battlefield of ideas.

I hope it's too early to start writing The Conquest of the United States by Iraq. But the U.S. has already become a lot more like Iraq since 9/11 than it was before. Civil liberties are under the most intense assault in a long while. Our Attorney General has sternly warned "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" that their "tactics only aid terrorists -- for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve." We don't yet have building-high posters of President Bush on every corner; but hey, it's a young century.

Posted October 10th, 2002



Face Value

What Greece really needs is a 250-foot-high sculpture of Alexander the Great's face carved into the side of a mountain.

At any rate, that what they think at the Alexandros Foundation, a Chicago-based organisation of Greek-Americans who are bankrolling the colossal project to the tune of $30 million. They're hoping to get the gargantuan noggin approved and constructed in time for the 2004 Olympics.

Apparently, though, folks back in Greece are less than thrilled with the project, complaining that the sculpture will damage the environment, as well as that it's, well, tackily American. As one official tactfully put it, ''Ideas for projects such as this are appropriate to countries the size of the US, where the spatial scale is different, but not the delicate Mediterranean landscape." Meanwhile there's grumbling in neighbouring Macedonia, where Alexander is considered a native son, not a patriotic symbol of Greece.

Interestingly, the one thing nobody seems to question is whether Alexander is worth commemorating in such a fashion.

Granted, he was a top-notch military strategist. If you need a lot of people conquered in a short time, Alexander's your man. But is that a good enough reason to honour him with the most humongous stone face this side of Mars?

In the words of Master Yoda: "Hmph! wars not make one great." The point seems especially well taken in Alexander's case. The project's website promises to "respect and conform to the archaeological, historical, and cultural dimensions of Alexander's philosophy." But philosophy doesn't seem to have been Alexander's strong suit. (Aristotle tried to teach him some, but with no evident success.) His first major achievement was helping his father Philip conquer all of Greece. For centuries the battle of Chaeronea was remembered bitterly as the moment when the independent city-states of classical Greece lost their freedom and fell under the yoke of the Macedonian empire.

For an encore, Alexander marched into Egypt and made himself pharaoh, taking a side trip to found Alexandria and to be assured by a local oracle that he was the son of God. (Well, we must be polite to our conquerors.) Then, no doubt feeling in the zone, he set out to conquer the Persian Empire. His armies pillaged and massacred their way from the Hellespont to the Indus, as Alexander gradually grew more deranged, demanding to be worshipped as a god, killing off trusted advisors for questioning his edicts, and finally drinking himself to death. On his deathbed, the legend goes, he left his empire "to the strongest." Certainly the legacy of his short-lived regime was a series of bloody civil wars among his generals, who carved up the empire among them.

Later mythologizers of Alexander have suggested that he was a cosmopolitan idealist who wanted to unify Greek and Persian culture. But there was plenty of cultural and commercial exchange going on between Greece and Persia already. All the killing and conquering seems de trop.

When so many ancient Greeks made positive contributions to civilisation, why honour a megalomaniacal mass-murderer like Alexander? Why not a poet, like Homer or Sophocles? Why not a scientist, like Archimedes or Euclid? Why not a philosopher, like Socrates or Aristotle? Or, if they must pick a political figure, why not someone like Pericles or Demosthenes -- leaders who, whatever their flaws (and they had plenty), have at least some claim to be champions of freedom and progress?

On second thought, though -- a 250-foot-high sculpture of Homer or Socrates or Demosthenes would be grotesque. It's not an honour they would have appreciated; indeed, I imagine they would have found the idea creepy and inappropriate. Alexander, by contrast, would have quite liked the idea of having his oversized phiz immortalised in towering rock.

But we must we give Alexander everything he wants? He was trouble enough while he was alive. Let him persuade his fellow wraiths in Hades to build him a monument there.

Posted October 10th, 2002



Bloody Constraint

The best line in tonight's live address from the most puissant Emperor George II to his lowly subjects was its first line: "Tonight I want to discuss a grave threat to peace: America's determination to lead the world."

But then it turned out that he hadn't finished the sentence. Oh well.

Still, the Emperor spoke truer than he intended; his speech showed exactly how and why the current American regime is indeed a grave threat to peace.

The speech's main purpose was evidently to explain why Iraq in particular should be the target of U.S. military force, given that the world is full of nasty countries run by nasty people. Thus the Emperor set out the case for why "Iraq is unique."

Unfortunately, the Emperor's list of points intended to prove Iraq's uniqueness proves just the opposite: each of those points applies to the United States as well.

To sum it all up: Iraq is run by a "homicidal regime" -- so Emperor George II solemnly informs us in the very speech in which he himself is proposing mass homicide. (Interestingly, he didn't mention Iraq's oil. But then, the United States has oil too.)

There were some charges specific to Iraq, however. For example, the Emperor continued to assert the existence of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq -- an assertion which has often been made, but for which the evidence has never been released. (But if you can't trust the Emperor, whom can you trust?)

Among Iraq's other sins against America: Saddam Hussein wants "nukuler" weapons (like many imperial rulers, George II has never fully mastered the language of his subjects), and -- shockingly! -- the Iraqi military has fired on American bombers in Iraqi airspace.

How impertinent, that a country against which we have been waging war for over a decade should seek to defend itself. The nerve of those guys!

Plus, there's the possibility that Hussein might provide aid to people who want to bomb civilians in America. Evil, evil. Of course, when our government bombs civilians in Iraq, that's different. The Emperor didn't explain how, exactly, but it must be different, because, well, Iraq is bad (as George I might have said).

America, of course, is made of nobler stuff. We are, the Emperor intoned reassuringly, "a friend to the people of Iraq." (It's a good thing he explained that, since the bombings and the forced starvation might have given some Iraqis the wrong idea.) Nevertheless, America has "never allowed the brutal and lawless to set history's course." (Can you say "Yalta," anyone?) Hence our nation's imperial ruler must chastise Iraq's "defiance."

Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
in thunder and earthquake, like a Jove,
that, if requiring fail, he will compel.
Nonetheless, for those who still wonder why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace should not in this best garden of the world put up her lovely visage, the Emperor did hold out some faint hope: war is not unavoidable, he said. All Iraq has to do is -- well, that wasn't too clear. The Emperor spoke delicately of "regime change" in Iraq, as though this were not synonymous with deposing Saddam Hussein. Still, if the Iraqi regime, "threatened with its own demise," should "adopt cruel and desperate measures" -- i.e. if it should use in self-defense the same kinds of weapons that the U.S. has not ruled out using in offense -- then, the Emperor warned, its top officials would be prosecuted as war criminals.

The Emperor set out to convince us that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous and self-aggrandising ruler, a threat to peace and stability. He succeeded in convincing me. But the Emperor's further inference -- that the key to achieving peace and stability lies in giving still more power to another dangerous and self-aggrandising ruler and authorising him to drag both the American and the Iraqi people into the path of indiscriminate violence and destruction -- well, that part was just too subtle for me.

Toward the end of his speech, Emperor George II spoke of the need to defend against "the whims of a ruthless and aggressive dictator." How right he is.

Posted October 7th, 2002



Who Says Freedom Isn't Free?

As the United States goes careening headlong toward empire abroad and a police state at home, it's gratifying to be able to report some good news: Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto has just been posted online, in both HTML and PDF formats. This is the best introduction to libertarianism that I know of, and now it's available for free!

Murray Rothbard -- economist, philosopher, and historian -- was one of the principal forces behind the revival of libertarianism in the late 20th century; a student of Ludwig von Mises, sometime associate of Ayn Rand, and a significant influence on Robert Nozick, Rothbard played a crucial role in the creation of many of the movement's major institutions, including the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute, and the Mises Institute.

Rothbard's book came out in 1973, a year before Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia made libertarianism "respectable" in academic circles. More radical and consistent than Nozick, Rothbard lays out a clear ethical and pragmatic case for a free society. If you haven't read it, go read it! If your friends haven't read it, make them read it! (so long as you can do so without aggressing against them)

These days, unfortunately, the chapter that most urgently needs to be read and linked to is the one on War and Foreign Policy.

Tolle, lege, ne pereat mundus.

Posted October 7th, 2002



Second Response to My Open Letter

Eric Coe has written a review not just of my Open Letter but of my entire blog. (I thank him, by the way, for alerting me so that I could counterblog!)

Mr. Coe is one of that paradoxical breed of pro-war libertarians – folks who value liberty, but who believe that an aggressive foreign policy will protect liberty more than it will endanger it.

On the subject of the actual effects of U.S. foreign policy, I would urge him to read two excellent books: Jonathan Kwitny's Endless Enemies and John Denson's The Costs of War. (The first of these two books was one that helped convert me from hawk to dove back in the 1980s. Yes, folks, I have a shady, hawkish past!) On the subject of our current administration's surreal foreign policy agenda, I would recommend Joseph Stromberg's article The Bushnev Doctrine (dissenting only on the bit about immigration).

Here are some quick reactions to Mr. Coe's specific points:

To my charge that the past decade's ongoing campaign of bombing and embargoes counts as an "undeclared" and "unconstitutional" war, Mr. Coe offers an ingenious response: since the original Gulf War was constitutionally declared (technically not true: Congress has actually not declared war since December 11, 1941), and since we've been bombing and starving Iraqis ever since, we should regard the Gulf War as being still in progress. Somehow I don't think our rulers would welcome the help Mr. Coe offers them, however, since they always refer to the Gulf War in the past tense, and talk about the need to "go to" war against Iraq. If indeed the original Gulf War is still in progress, then our rulers have (as usual) been attempting to perpetrate a massive fraud on the American people.

Mr. Coe thinks it is "weasel language" for me to refer to a war against the Iraqi people rather than against the Iraqi regime. Well, the regime survives, and the people are dying. Seems like precise language to me.

Mr. Coe says that Iraq has not met the U.S. demands, because he interprets those demands in such a way that Iraq could not meet them without surrendering its sovereignty. If such an interpretation is correct, it seems to me that what it shows is that the U.S. demands are the lawless edicts of a rogue state.

Mr. Coe thinks no link between Iraq and 9/11 needs to be shown, because "this is international relations, not a court of law." But the notion that considerations of law do not apply in international relations is precisely what I am objecting to.

Another reason for not needing to show such a link, Mr. Coe suggests, is that there's plenty of evidence that Iraq is some sort of terrorist state anyway. Well, sure it is. By most definitions of terrorism, so is the United States. So we've got a grudge match between a big terrorist state and a little terrorist state. It's hard to find that inspiring.

Mr. Coe challenges me to name other oppressive and/or terrorist regimes with weapons of massive destruction. Okay, here are some: Egypt, Syria, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, the United States. Mr. Coe also says that "it's better to take on one enemy at a time," so all the other bad guys "will have to wait their turn." So apparently, Mr. Coe's plan is for America to conquer the world. Somehow, though, I doubt the process of implementing this plan will prove a bonanza for liberty -- either ours or theirs.

Mr. Coe says he is unwilling to base his safety on an estimate of the rationality of an absolute dictator. And yet the war he supports is rapidly converting this country into an absolute dictatorship. Cognitive dissonance?

With regard to the desirability of abolishing the State, Mr. Coe complains that the problem of what would replace it, and how, is "not discussed nearly enough in the libertarian world." This is a surprising claim, in light of the thousands (literally) of pages that have been penned on this subject. (For the tip of the iceberg, check out the links here.)

Mr. Coe also opines that the 9/11 attack is decisive proof that we can't afford to abolish the State. I would have thought it's decisive evidence that we can't afford not to abolish the State, since the State is what got us into that mess in the first place. (A thought: if New York had been a separate country rather than part of the U.S. -- and so, in the eyes of al-Qaeda, complicit in U.S. policy -- would the World Trade Center have been attacked?)

On other matters:

With regard to my interest in Ayn Rand (and it is Ayn, not Ann!), Mr. Coe complains that the characters and world portrayed in her novels are "cardboard." If he means that the characters and world are "stylized" and therefore not "realistic" -- well, sure. That's Rand's literary style, and she does it very well. Would I want everyone to write like Rand? No -- there's no one I want everyone to write like. Nor would I want Verdi to compose like Bob Dylan or vice versa. Nor would I want Monet to paint like Hopper or vice versa. Excellence has many varieties. If instead what Mr. Coe means is that her characters and world are flat and lack subtlety -- then I can only express bafflement at this judgment.

With regard to the nature of colour, Mr. Coe considers this an "angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin" question that arises from the limitations of natural language. In response, I can only invite him to try dispensing with natural language in favour of something more precise. If this proves impossible, as I suspect it will, then he's stuck speaking the same language as the rest of us. Gesturing to some more precise language which no one can actually speak seems like an unpromising way of solving a philosophical problem. (As for the claim that the word "colour" is ambiguous in natural language, I take Mike Watkins' book to have refuted that claim pretty decisively.)

With regard to free will, Mr. Coe's suggestion seems to be that we are causally determined but we are not aware of what's causally determining us. I'm not sure, though, what his reply is to the argument I gave for the inconceivability of that hypothesis.

Posted October 7th, 2002



First Response to My Open Letter

Charles Gill writes:

Yes, perhaps it is much better to leave millions of Iraqis to their common slavery.

For they all are just slaves to a nutcase dictator.

And we are all sooo sure that liberating them would be just soooooo illegal!

You are truly an idiot.
While it's gratifying to see twelve-year-olds taking an interest in problems of geopolitics (I infer Mr. Gill's age from his manner of expression), I can't help being skeptical of his assumption that our government is motivated by some desire to "liberate" the Iraqi people. My skepticism is based on the following considerations:

Posted October 7th, 2002



An Open Letter on War With Iraq

The following letter, which I've sent to my "representatives" in Congress (yeah, I still sometimes engage in the unrewarding pastime of hurling syllogisms at the Leviathan), is part of a blogburst, a simultaneous, cross-linked posting of many blogs on a single theme. For a guide to other letters in this blogburst, go to The Open Letters BlogBurst Index, at

Dear [Senator X / Representative X]:

After waging an undeclared (and unconstitutional) war on the Iraqi people for the past decade via bombings and embargoes, the United States finally gave Iraq an ultimatum: agree to let in our weapons inspectors, or we'll invade. So Iraq agreed to let in our weapons inspectors. And now we're going to invade anyway??

Despite the fact that Iraq has met our demands? Despite the fact that no credible link has been established between Iraq and the September 11th attacks? Despite the fact that Iraq is no worse than dozens of other tinpot oppressive dictatorships around the globe (many of which actually possess weapons of mass destruction right now, rather than in some imagined future)? And despite the fact that whatever weapons of mass destruction Hussein may have, he (not being suicidal) is unlikely to use except in the event of an invasion, when he has nothing left to lose?

To invade Iraq on such shaky pretexts would be to declare to the world that when it comes to the Middle East, our favoured policy is one of force unrestrained by law.

No move could be better calculated to destroy our international credibility. And no move could be better calculated to win more angry recruits for our terrorist enemies.

America cannot afford to tarnish its honour by engaging in such an act of naked aggression.

America cannot afford to endanger its citizens by acting in such a way as to increase the threat of terrorist reprisals (as well as the predictable governmental response to such reprisals: the further loss of civil liberties).

America cannot afford to spread its already overextended military resources and personnel still further.

And finally, given the shaky state of the economy, America just plain cannot afford the massive tax increases and/or deficit spending with which a full-scale war would burden your constituents.

The Constitution does not authorise the United States to act as the world's policeman. And our attempts to do so, spilling much blood and treasure in the process, have only made the world more, not less, dangerous.

I urge you, as you love your country, to oppose any and all military action against Iraq.

Sincerely yours,

Roderick T. Long

Posted October 7th, 2002



True Colours: Outranding the Randians

Today I want to use this (un)blog to plug a maximally cool new book by my colleague Michael Watkins: Rediscovering Colors: A Study in Pollyanna Realism.

The thesis of the book is that colours are properties of objects.

Okay, that may not sound earth-shaking. But it's been the minority view in philosophy for the last four centuries or so. Ever since the Anti-Aristotelean Revolution in the 1600s, the common-sense view that colours are just where they seem to be -- out there, on the surfaces of physical objects -- has been thought to clash with what the natural sciences tell us. After all, our best scientific theories appear to explain colour perception without appealing at any point to colours. Instead they talk about wavelengths and surface textures and rods and cones and optic nerves. But if our best explanations of colour perception don't make any reference to colours, it's difficult to resist the conclusion that all our colour experiences would be just the same whether or not colours really existed, out there in the world -- which in turn suggests that we have no good reason to believe there are any colours out there at all.

One way to resist this conclusion would be to identify colours with some part of the physical-causal story. Then it would turn out, happily, that it is colours after all that our best explanations of colour perception have been appealing to. The problem with this solution is that no part of the physical-causal story seems to be a plausible candidate for such an identification; no feature of interest to natural science seems to have the right properties to be (what we mean by) colour.

Hence even the Randians -- robust Aristotelean realists by reputation and inclination -- have been driven to the quasi-Kantian view that colours are not really properties inherent in external physical things, but instead consist in relations between such things and observers, belonging to the form of sensory perception rather than to its objects. (For a well-argued defense of the Randian position, see David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Perception.)

And yet, there Mike's new book sits on my desk, looking turquoise. Indeed, it doesn’t just look turquoise -- it looks inherently turquoise. That is, the colour seems to be right there on the book -- not in me, or in some relation between me and the book. So if the Anti-Aristotelean Consensus (to which, on this issue, the Randians embarrassingly belong) is correct, then our perceptual experience of colour is systematically delusive. (Randians try to avoid this latter conclusion by making a sharp distinction between perception and perceptual judgment; but as I've argued elsewhere, this distinction can't be sustained without depriving perceptual experience of all content. For a heftier argument along the same lines, see John McDowell's Mind and World.)

The importance of Rediscovering Colors lies in its offering us a way to escape this gloomy conclusion. What Mike's cheery "Pollyanna realism" shows us is that, contrary to prevailing opinion, it is possible to construct a philosophical theory of colour that possesses all the following desiderata:

In Randian terminology, colours on Mike's view turn out to be "intrinsic" rather than "objective" features of physical objects. This fact alone should not make Randians reach for their metaphysical revolvers; after all, Objectivism isn't -- and, given its emphasis on the "Primacy of Existence," had better not be -- committed to claiming that no features of things are intrinsic. What Randians (along with many others) have argued, however, is that colours cannot be intrinsic features of objects because of the following dilemma: If colours are intrinsic features of objects, are they identical with certain physical features identifiable in nonvisual terms? The problem with saying yes is that there is no one physical feature that all objects of the same colour share. The problem with saying no is that positing colours in addition to ordinary physical features seems superfluous, since the ordinary physical features seem to be causally sufficient by themselves to explain colour perception. (See Kelley, pp. 95-99, for just this argument.)

If this dilemma has troubled your sleep, read Mike Watkins' book. He has solved the dilemma. One can regard colours as intrinsic properties of objects without being impaled on either horn.

No, I'm not going to tell you how! Anyone interested in defending an Aristotelean-realist account of perception should go read the book for herself. Buy it now! What are you waiting for?

Posted October 1st, 2002



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